Thursday, January 17, 2013

Candide, by Voltaire (1694-1778), translated by John Butt (1947)

All you need to know to appreciate this delicious one hundred and forty page satirical novella is that during Voltaire’s lifetime, the German philosopher and mathematician Leibniz, known as the last ‘universal genius’ (instrumental in the invention of the calculator, by the way) wrote that ‘this is the best of all possible worlds’. While Leibniz wasn’t thinking in terms of gradations of quality, such as good, better, and best (since he knew of no alternate universes with which to compare and contrast this one), this philosophy, certainly in its summarized form, struck many as a dismissive and flippant excuse for evil, a callous refutation of worldly sorrows and wickedness. In fairness, Leibniz based his claim on the notion that, given what he called the ‘sufficient reason’ or the belief that nothing happens without a reason, God, being omnipotent and omniscient, wouldn’t allow evil to exist if He didn’t see some need for it. Still, small comfort to those in pain.

Voltaire had dealt with his own share of suffering, having served time twice in the Bastille, and clubbed for offending a courtier. After the earthquakes of Lima (1746) and Lisbon (1755), Voltaire took quill to parchment to compose a wickedly funny satire to mock what he saw as lazy renditions of Leibniz’s assertion. Voltaire wasn’t an atheist; he was a deist. His novella doesn’t attempt to impugn God’s existence. Rather, think of Stephen Cobert’s shtick, the way he mocks Bill O’Reilly’s politics and personal panache by essentially creating exaggerations of those positions. While it’s true Cobert is no fan of O’Reilly’s politics, his comedy show is more about hyperbole and sarcasm than a critical examination of O’Reilly’s political philosophy.

Candide, named after its protagonist, is arguably Voltaire’s greatest work. It’s a breezy tale about a fictitious young man whose tutor is the token optimist, Pangloss – a representative of the ‘sufficient reason’ crowd who, amidst a slew of absurd catastrophes, maintains that all is for the best. Along with his dearest friends and his true love Cunégonde, our protagonist Candide encounters and suffers incalculable calamities, much of it written as outrageous parody, all the while siding with Pangloss by counting it all joy. While some of these events are loosely based on actual historical horrors – war, famine, torture – the circumstances, paired with the abundant serendipity throughout make the story so exceedingly ridiculous as to induce excessive laughter, the kind of laughter that forces one to stop reading and take a few deep breaths before resuming. Hard to believe how funny this is 250 years after its original publication.

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